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Talking About Forced Sex of Avatars = Crime?

Some people call it "virtual rape," but it strikes me as so far removed from the real thing that even including the adjective "virtual" leaves the phrase with a misleading connotation. In any case, Wired commentator Regina Lynn reports:

Last month, two Belgian publications reported that the Brussels police have begun an investigation into a citizen's allegations of rape — in Second Life....

Can anyone who speaks Dutch tell us more about these accounts (here and here)? I'd like to know whether they seem real or jokes (a possibility the Wired item flags), and also precisely what laws were allegedly violated.

I should note:

  1. One can easily imagine a game in which such behavior is cause for expulsion, or breach of a player's contract; but I take it that this wouldn't make it a criminal violation.

  2. The speech might also be punishable as a threat if it is reasonably perceived as a threat against the real person whose avatar is involved, for instance, if it appears that the speaker knows who the avatar's real-world user is, and in context the statements are reasonably understood are threatening the user. But this would be unlikely if there's no reason to think that the user's identity is known. (Note also that under U.S. law, it's possible that for the speech to be a threat there must also be evidence that the speaker intends it to be perceived as a threat; I can't speak to Belgian law.)

  3. Sufficiently explicit talk of sex might be seen as punishable pornography, depending on the country's laws. It's conceivable that it would even qualify as unprotected and criminally punishable obscenity in the U.S. (and the targeting of the statement to an unconsenting player might help support this position, if the "prurient interest" and "patent[] offensive[ness]" prongs are seen as considering the context of the speech as well as the content); but it would have to be pretty explicit for that to happen, I think.

In any event, I'm curious what exactly the legal theory is in the Belgian investigations, if there really are investigations and there really is a legal theory.

Thanks to John Rayburn for the pointer.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Dutch-speaking reader James Wallmann, who writes:

The two news items are virtually identical. Here are the translations:

First link:

Federal Computer Crime Unit Patrols in Second Life

The Brussels Public Prosecutor's Office has asked investigators of the Federal Computer Crime Unit to patrol in Second Life.

In the virtual world of the computer game[*] a personality was recently "raped." Following the virtual rape the Brussels police opened a file. "It is the intent to determine whether punishable acts have been committed," according to the federal police. The Public Prosecutor's Office was also alarmed. At the vice section acting officer Verlinden opened an informational investigation into the details.

* Note use of diminutive suffix (-etje), which I didn't translate, suggesting this is something trivial or for kids....

Second link:

Brussels Police to Patrol in Second Life

The Brussels Public Prosecutor's Office has asked investigators of the Federal Computer Crime Unit to patrol in Second Life. This according to De Morgen. In the virtual world of the computer game[*] a personality was recently "raped." Following the virtual rape the Brussels police opened a file. "It is the intent to determine whether punishable acts have been committed," according to the federal police. The Public Prosecutor's Office was also alarmed. At the vice section acting officer Verlinden opened an informational investigation into the details.

* Note use of diminutive suffix (-etje), which I didn't translate, suggesting this is something trivial or for kids.

Real or jokes? Your guess is as good as mine. I suspect that the anonymous reporter thinks this investigation is a bit silly, but perhaps just the facts are being reported. As you see from the translations, nothing is said about what laws may have been violated.

Three of the comments in the first link were amusing: "Will the perpetrator receive a virtual punishment?" and "For heaven's sake, what's going on here? Normally citizens have to move heaven and earth to get the police involved in something. Gentlemen, this is virtual! Perhaps the Public Prosecutor's Office doesn't know what this means." and "Ah, that lovely feeling you get when you hear that your tax dollars are being wisely spent." The commentators certainly took the article at face value, not as a joke.

bigchris1313 (mail):

Some suggest that the best way to deal with a virtual rape is to ignore it, or simply log off and come back as another user.

But in a game, you don't want to lose the long-term investment you've made in your character.


If they're talking about what I think they're talking about, virtual "rape" in an MMORPG, then I can think of a few fixes: /ignore, /petition, /report.
5.4.2007 4:00pm
pete (mail) (www):
I have never played any MMORPG, but these games already tolerate virtual assault, arson, robbery, murder, vandalism, kidnapping, etc. The point of these games is that you get to do these things to other people's avatars or to computer genreated characters.
5.4.2007 4:22pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
When it's loony Tuesday it must be Belgium. Anything is possible when it comes to this country, which lives in the gamma quadrant. Olivier Maingain, the mayor of Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe, one of the 19 Brussels boroughs, is planning to tax all 'antennas for the transmission of data' 4,000 Euros per year. That's $5,439 per year or $453 per month. Now the Flemish (Dutch) speaking north of the country, which is far more sensible, wants to become a separate country. Can anyone blame them? It would not surprise me that this is not a joke. When it comes to Belgium and the EU, anything goes.
5.4.2007 4:32pm
Le Messurier (mail):
Avatar

What in H... is an Avatar? Seriously. Do I need to know what or who it/they are? Is this knowledge important. Is asking the question worthwhile? Seriously, I have NO idea what an Avatar is. Let me know please.
5.4.2007 4:32pm
FantasiaWHT:
This is interesting. There's an important difference here between what you can do in a text-based MUD- type words describing what you or someone else are doing, and a modern MMORPGs, which are graphical, visual, and interactive worlds, and even more so when you look at Second Life's mostly unique system of allowing an amazingly wide variety of player-created content.

Unfortunately, there's not enough information in any of the articles I could read about what actually happened, but I know that the interface of Second Life allows sex between characters, and it wouldn't be too far of a stretch for me to imagine a hack of some kind that, if nothing else, immobilizes somebody's character while the player watches the other character rape her.

I also did read briefly about a year ago about an independent project for an MMO that allowed basically every crime imaginable to be committed on other characters, including murder and rape.
5.4.2007 4:33pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
5.4.2007 4:42pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
Le Messurier:

Of old an avatar is the physical manifestation/incarnation of a Hindu Deity.

In more recent times, it can refer to the electronic-image manifestation of a real person in games, etc.

For more, see Wikipedia
5.4.2007 4:46pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
What's bugging them? This is Belgium where

"Tania Derveaux, leading candidate for senate of the NEE party in Belgium goes completely naked for the party's campaign and for Belgium's most popular men's magazine. Their official campaign involves billboards featuring her in all her naked glory with a very seductive look and the text "I promise you 400.000 jobs" above her."

You can see one of her of her billboard ads here. Better than Hillary.
5.4.2007 4:48pm
Steve:
I could see "virtual rape" being actionable as some sort of harassment-type crime, but not as literal rape, obviously.
5.4.2007 4:51pm
Independent George (mail):
The only applicable crime I can think of is (maybe) vandalism. Maybe.
5.4.2007 4:59pm
A.S.:
If real life authorities are looking at taxing Second Life transactions, why shouldn't real life authorities look at rape in Second Life also?
5.4.2007 5:04pm
A.S.:
Oh, and I would be worried if I were a Grand Theft Auto player in Belgium too.
5.4.2007 5:06pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
RE: Avatar

A Hindu word that was used to describe the physical manifestations of the various gods/goddesses.

It was adapted by various science fiction authors (I think Neal Stephenson was one of the first in Snow Crash) to describe the graphical representations people chose for themselves in the virtual/cyber/internet/computer-based worlds.
5.4.2007 5:09pm
Corey Rayburn Yung (mail) (www):
I think "virtual rape" is a tricky legal issue. I posted on my blog a normative argument for criminalizing "virtual rape" based on a property rights conception of cyberspace. I doubt this is what the theory is in the Belgium case, but I think there is at least a decent argument for treating "virtual rape" as some sort of crime.
5.4.2007 5:10pm
Seamus (mail):

I doubt this is what the theory is in the Belgium case, but I think there is at least a decent argument for treating "virtual rape" as some sort of crime.


It should be investigated by the virtual police, and punished with virtual imprisonment.
5.4.2007 5:15pm
FantasiaWHT:

I posted on my blog a normative argument for criminalizing "virtual rape" based on a property rights conception of cyberspace.


Has it been settled whether a player actually has a property right to any online items collected? The EULA's of virtually all MMO's include disclaimers that all characters, items, etc. belong to the publisher, not the player. Is the word still out on whether those "shrinkwrapped" EULA's form a binding contract?
5.4.2007 5:21pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Couldn't sexually assaulting an avatar be considered a form of Statuary Rape?
5.4.2007 5:35pm
billb:
Fantasia: SecondLife is explicitly contrary to this. All items, characters, etc. are copyright to and/or property of thier creator.
5.4.2007 5:36pm
QuintCarte (mail):
I'll admit I don't play Second Life, but I do play other MMORPGs fairly heavily.

This whole topic seems silly to me. In most MMORPGs, nothing another player does can actually change my character without my permission. They can't even fight me without my agreement. About the worst they can do is hang around me and say rude things... which /ignore quickly takes care of.

I can see why a simulated rape is obnoxious behavior which should be reported to a GM, and may even get the perpetrator suspended from the game. But to even kind-of-sort-of-vaguely consider this as something with real world consequences or real world legal punishment is beyond absurd to me.

(I say the same thing regarding taxing virtual income. Show me what real world goods virtual currency can get me, and then we can talk about tax. Or if you insist, I'll pay my tax in the same currency I earned in. Have fun with your virtual gold pieces).

This topic just shows that some people are very, very confused about the difference between reality and a gaming simulation.
5.4.2007 5:50pm
FantasiaWHT:

Show me what real world goods virtual currency can get me, and then we can talk about tax.


Go look on ebay. Selling virtual goods for real money is a cottage industry (quite literally- there are entire companies devoted to nothing more than "farming" virtual resources and selling them to people too lazy to earn it themselves in the game).

Not that I think you should have to pay a tax on it.

billb, thanks for that reminder. I knew some out there were devoid of that clause, couldn't remember offhand if SL was or not.
5.4.2007 5:57pm
xx:
"Show me what real world goods virtual currency can get me, and then we can talk about tax."

Step 1: Virtual money can be exchanged for virtual goods and services.
Step 2: Virtual goods and services can be exchanged for real money.
Step 3: Real money can be exchanged for real goods and services.
5.4.2007 6:13pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):

Show me what real world goods virtual currency can get me, and then we can talk about tax.


A week or two ago, a female World Of Warcraft player sold a real life sexual act as performed by herself in exchange for ~5000 gold coins in game (with which she intended to purchase her epic mount, which led to all sorts of word play amongst forum-goers.)
5.4.2007 6:24pm
Dave1L (mail) (www):
As for the property rights, here is information on Richard Posner actually giving a talk on virtual property as a Second Life avatar.

And if you are curious about the value of virtual currency and property, there is information here and here on Second life's actual and possible potential.
5.4.2007 6:27pm
QuintCarte (mail):
Regarding the comments on virtual currency:

Well, yes, you can sell virtual currency for real currency. (This is strictly against the terms of games I've played, and people get banned for it, but it certainly goes on).

But then you've sold something for a concrete currency. You have real life income. There is already plenty of legal infrastructure around to tax real income, and it would apply to that sale.

If, however, everything remains in the virtual world, nothing concrete has been produced or earned, and thus nothing should be taxed.

I'm grasping for a good analogy and failing, so forgive the short comings of this one: Suppose you play a video basketball game with your best friend, and further you've (perhaps illegally) agreed to gamble and pay each other $5 when the other one wins a game.

Would it make sense to then say that making a virtual basket earning you a virtual 2 points should be taxed as real income? So that every fake swish costs you $.05 or whatever? Even to the million 9 year olds playing solo basketball who have no gambling deal and no income from it?

Or does it make sense to say that you've earned $5 of real gambling income, which is taxable income?

I have to say the latter. 'Virtual' money only becomes real when you find someone willing to buy it with real currency, and that real currency is indeed taxable income to you.
5.4.2007 6:37pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
I'm sure they just allege that the peron whose avatar was "raped" was a child. Therefore, a child was forced to see something sexual and that's all that matters. That would work in nearly any state in the USA. A stranger comes over to a child playing with a stuffed animal in the park, grabs the stuffed animal, cuts a hole in it, and starts to masturbate ('rape') it. It would be indecent exposure for sure, but i'm sure there are plenty of DAs across america who'd also charge it as some form of sexual assault. Get ready for the "implied touch" doctrine to become part of black letter American lw.
5.4.2007 6:59pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):

'Virtual' money only becomes real when you find someone willing to buy it with real currency, and that real currency is indeed taxable income to you.


The same is true for "real" money. These little slips of cloth paper with ink on them have very little real value, but quite a lot of ascribed virtual value dependent upon how the ink is arranged on it.

There are people who put a lot of effort into acruing various Virtual (capital V to represent the digital non-real world) possessions and wealth. And the old truism, "Time is money" is holding still holding true with regard to people's opinions of the time they have put into that work. Many people have sold the information to access high level, well-equipped MMORPG characters (in violation of EULAs and without actually passing ownership since most game companies own the actual characters as someone mentioned already.)

As time goes by and more and more people get involved in metaverses, those metaverses will stabilize and an exchange rate will become established between the real and virtual worlds. Approximately 1% of the world's population plays World of Warcraft, and there is already a pretty well defined rate of exchange for $ -> gold coins and $ -> in-game value of a character's level and equipment.
5.4.2007 7:01pm
QuintCarte (mail):
bornyesterday

I have to agree with everything you wrote :-)

My only point is that it doesn't make sense to tax virtual currency/items in the virtual world. It only makes sense to tax the real income, made in the real world, that one gets from selling virtual items. And taxing real income is something we're already pretty good at doing.
5.4.2007 7:12pm
Elliot123 (mail):
This is depressing. I went into second Life and all I could do was walk, turn, and fly. I couldn't land. I tried to change clothes and ended up naked. I couldn't get dressed again. And now I hear some guy has figured out how to rape someone? What else can he do? He probably can even get dressed.
5.4.2007 7:18pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Perhaps people remember a similar incident involving "mr. bungle," an oleaginous clown avatar that "committed" a "virtual rape" some ten years ago.

It was the subject of a very famous article by Julian Dibell, here. The incident has been studied in a number of academic disciplines, as it presents fairly fascinating legal, sexual, political, social, and ontological questions.

Forgive me if someone has already posted this article on the thread, I may not have read carefully enough.
5.4.2007 7:27pm
Shake-N-Bake:
From what I've read a number of times, Second Life currency actually has an established real US Dollar conversion, and I believe you are allowed to sell your virtual currency (unlike most other games where it's against the terms)
5.4.2007 7:34pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
For reference, btw:


Second Life: Community Standards
================================

Welcome to Second Life. We hope you will have a richly rewarding experience, filled with creativity, self expression and fun. The goals of the Community Standards are simple: treat each other with respect and without harassment, adhere to local standards as indicated by simulator ratings, and refrain from any hate activity which slurs a real-world individual or real-world community.

Behavioral Guidelines - The "Big Six"
=====================================
Within Second Life, we want to support Residents in shaping their specific experiences and making their own choices. The Community Standards sets out six behaviors, the "Big Six", that will result in suspension or, with repeated violations, expulsion from the Second Life Community. All Second Life Community Standards apply to all areas of Second Life, the Second Life Forums, and the Second Life Website.

Intolerance
-----------
Combating intolerance is a cornerstone of Second Life's Community Standards. Actions that marginalize, belittle, or defame individuals or groups inhibit the satisfying exchange of ideas and diminish the Second Life community as whole. The use of derogatory or demeaning language or images in reference to another Resident's race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual preference is never allowed in Second Life.

Harassment
----------
Given the myriad capabilities of Second Life, harassment can take many forms. Communicating or behaving in a manner which is offensively coarse, intimidating or threatening, constitutes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, or is otherwise likely to cause annoyance or alarm is Harassment.

Assault
-------
Most areas in Second Life are identified as Safe. Assault in Second Life means: shooting, pushing, or shoving another Resident in a Safe Area (see Global Standards below); creating or using scripted objects which singularly or persistently target another Resident in a manner which prevents their enjoyment of Second Life.

Disclosure
----------
Residents are entitled to a reasonable level of privacy with regard to their Second Lives. Sharing personal information about a fellow Resident --including gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual preference, and real-world location beyond what is provided by the Resident in the First Life page of their Resident profile is a violation of that Resident's privacy. Remotely monitoring conversations, posting conversation logs, or sharing conversation logs without consent are all prohibited in Second Life and on the Second Life Forums.

Indecency
---------
Second Life is an adult community, but Mature material is not necessarily appropriate in all areas (see Global Standards below). Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense strong language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or strong violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M). Names of Residents, objects, places and groups are broadly viewable in Second Life directories and on the Second Life website, and must adhere to PG guidelines.

Disturbing the Peace
--------------------
Every Resident has a right to live their Second Life. Disrupting scheduled events, repeated transmission of undesired advertising content, the use of repetitive sounds, following or self-spawning items, or other objects that intentionally slow server performance or inhibit another Resident's ability to enjoy Second Life are examples of Disturbing the Peace.

Policies and Policing
=====================

Global Standards, Local Ratings
-------------------------------
All areas of Second Life, including the www.secondlife.com website and the Second Life Forums, adhere to the same Community Standards. Locations within Second Life are noted as Safe or Unsafe and rated Mature (M) or non-Mature (PG), and behavior must conform to the local ratings. Any unrated area of Second Life or the Second Life website should be considered non-Mature (PG).

Warning, Suspension, Banishment
-------------------------------
Second Life is a complex society, and it can take some time for new Residents to gain a full understanding of local customs and mores. Generally, violations of the Community Standards will first result in a Warning, followed by Suspension and eventual Banishment from Second Life. In-World Representatives, called Liaisons, may occasionally address disciplinary problems with a temporary removal from Second Life.

Global Attacks
------------
Objects, scripts, or actions which broadly interfere with or disrupts the Second Life community, the Second Life servers or other systems related to Second Life will not be tolerated in any form. We will hold you responsible for any actions you take, or that are taken by objects or scripts that belong to you. Sandboxes are available for testing objects and scripts that have components that may be unmanageable or whose behavior you may not be able to predict. If you chose to use a script that substantially disrupts the operation of Second Life, disciplinary actions will result in a minimum two-week suspension, the possible loss of in-world inventory, and a review of your account for probable expulsion from Second Life.

Alternate Accounts
------------------
While Residents may choose to play Second Life with more than one account, specifically or consistently using an alternate account to harass other Residents or violate the Community Standards is not acceptable. Alternate accounts are generally treated as separate from a Resident's principal account, but misuse of alternate accounts can and will result in disciplinary action on the principal account.

Buyer Beware
------------
Linden Lab does not exercise editorial control over the content of Second Life, and will make no specific efforts to review the textures, objects, sounds or other content created within Second Life. Additionally, Linden Lab does not certify or endorse the operation of in-world games, vending machines, or retail locations; refunds must be requested from the owners of these objects.

Reporting Abuse
---------------
Residents should report violations of the Community Standards using the Abuse Reporter tool located under the Help menu in the in-world tool bar. Every Abuse Report is individually investigated, and the identity of the reporter is kept strictly confidential. If you need immediate assistance, in-world Liaisons may be available to help. Look for Residents with the last name Linden.
5.4.2007 7:39pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
Okay, I actually *do* play SL (Yukio Muromachi), and we might as well introduce some actual facts here. First, unlike other MMORPGs, SL money ("lindens") is explicitly exchangeable for external currency in both directions, including a currency exchange run by Second Life itself. Second, SL does accept some limited sense of property rights; one has explicit copyright in one's creations. On the other hand, if any sort of failure of the SL system causes one to lose virtual property, one has no rights nor recourse, according to the terms of service. (Since system problems have been causing losses right and left recently, and since any loss of property has the effect of directly contributing to the bottom line of Second Life, this has been the subject of some controversy recently.)

And third, virtual rape is, in any reasonable sense, impossible, since one can always leave: walk away, teleport away, or simply exit the SL client.
5.4.2007 8:33pm
FantasiaWHT:
I still want to know exactly what happened in SL. Babelfish wasn't very helpful with the Dutch, hehe... kept trying to tell me about parquet floors.
5.4.2007 10:57pm
in bruges:
Brussels prosecution and police opened the file using the Federal Computer Crime Unit to see if they can find whether any punishable crimes have been committed. So it's just an investigation into the facts - though they are not sure whether or not there has been a punishable crime committed. Also minister of justice has said that child porn cannot be prohibited in Second life because it is a computer game - but they may try to change the law on this
5.5.2007 6:13am
reluctant second life non-participant (mail):
Am I the only person here who finds the concept of Second Life to be intriguing, but reluctantly avoids becoming involved because it will usurp his (my) life?
It's bad enough to be addicted to video and role playing games. To have a whole new virtual world to exist in (and that people obviously take very seriously) seems like an open invitation to perpetual adolescence and escapism.
5.5.2007 9:50am
Michael_The_Rock:
reluctant second life non-participant:

Like a small town the hits the big time, I imagine that if I went back to SL now after having been gone for two years, it would look a lot different. I had fun exploring the geography, the architecture, some G-rated amusements. What turned me off to the place was that I couldn't seem to find an area to socialize where people would refrain from trying to "give me items" including penises and sex clothing. So after a while, "lone wolf" exploration got boring. I got more out of the Myst series than I did from SL.
5.5.2007 10:46am
Rubber Goose (mail):
xx:

"Show me what real world goods virtual currency can get me, and then we can talk about tax."

Step 1: Virtual money can be exchanged for virtual goods and services.
Step 2: Virtual goods and services can be exchanged for real money.
Step 3: Real money can be exchanged for real goods and services.


Homer(sifting through couch cushions): Twenty dollars? I wanted a peanut.
Homer's Brain: Twenty dollars can buy many peanuts.
Homer: Explain how.
Homer's Brain: Money can be exchanged for goods and services.
Homer: Woo-hoo!
5.5.2007 1:11pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
I guess this post begs the question: is a licensed attorney allowed to practice law in Second Life without taking another SL Bar Exam or applying pro hac vice? What about someone not licensed as an attorney (in the real world)? Can anyone hang a virtual shingle and start a law practice? If that's alright within the confines of Second Life rules, is it alright within the confines of real-world bar ethics rules (assuming I'd be advising out of state/country clients on foreign law with servers likely in a foreign jurisdiction)? Someone has to defend those virtual rape charges (and the real-world ones as well).
5.5.2007 1:20pm
markm (mail):
Eugene, what's this "Dutch speaking"? Dutch is the language of The Netherlands. This being Belgium, you must be thinking of Flemish. Now, that might be close enough to Dutch for a Dutch-speaker to be able to figure it out, but I'd ask for a Fleming first...
5.5.2007 6:43pm
ys:

* Note use of diminutive suffix (-etje), which I didn't translate, suggesting this is something trivial or for kids.

My research through relevant Dutch texts on the web seems to indicate that this suffix designates a generic computer game, rather than something specifically for kids. Dutch is famously prone to use this diminutive ending across the board (and for the purists - it's close enough to Flemish, with most differences mainly phonetic). This is also not the first time a Dutch language source reports on Brussels' desire to clamp down on violent computer games. See for instance here
5.6.2007 4:03pm
SexCrimeDefender (mail) (www):
Even more interesting is the presence of virtual child brothels in Second Life. Virtual brothels like "Jailbait" would seem to easily get through the Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition hoop but no doubt legislators will try some creative (or not-so-creative) approaches to closing that particular barn door.
5.6.2007 5:10pm